Six years after St Andrews Links Trust purchased land at Kinkell Braes outside the town – just along from the Torrrance and Devlin (now called Kittocks) golf courses – the much-anticipated new Castle course welcomed its first paying customers at the end of June 2008.
Laid out on a cliff top with more than a mile of waterfront overlooking the town, the Castle was constructed by David McLay Kidd and his DMK design company. Lead shaper, Mick McShane, deserves much credit for turning featureless farmland (described as a “hillside of rotten rock”) into anything remotely resembling a golf course, in much the same way as he did at nearby Kingsbarns.
The new seventh member of the Links Trust’s portfolio may be seen by some as the black sheep of the St Andrews links family due to its unnatural links character but the design and feel of the new links-like course is such that it blends in superbly with the other courses on the roster.
Routed in two loops of nine, the holes on each loop of the Castle course rise up from the clubhouse to higher ground alongside the A917 Crail Road before tumbling back down again, with the closing three holes of each strung out along the coastline. Clever mounding ensures many of the holes play in isolation to the others, intensifying the expectation of what’s to come next.
The feature hole is the par three 17th, played across a ravine on the edge of the cliffs, into the prevailing wind from St Andrews. It really is an all or nothing hole where anything right is gone forever so the safe play is to aim left, where the contours will hopefully funnel the ball right to the putting surface.
It will be interesting to see what reviewers make of the new kid on the St Andrews golfing scene.
I played the Castle Course in early June on a short golfing trip to St Andrews. Having played the Old Course the day before, one could be forgiven if they felt that the Castle didn't live up to her much older siblings status, however I would disagree. From turning onto the driveway down through the property towards the coast and clubhouse, this place feels special. It immediately struck me that this was reminiscent of Bandon Dunes in Oregon which I played a couple of years ago - and it is, It is designed by David Mckay Kidd who designed Bandon Dunes some 10 years previous. Cliff top golf, rather than links, at its very best, The Castle Course has a truly magical feel to it, away from the hustle and bustle of town, you feel you are entering into something rather special. The clubhouse is welcoming and the additional touches i.e. free goody bag with ball marker, course planner etc and free range balls are nice additional touches. Given the windy conditions we were encouraged to play off the yellow tees and having teed off we had a thoroughly enjoyable 18 holes of golf ahead of us. My stand out hole is the par 3 17th across a ravine (reminds me of the par 3 on the Pacific Dunes course). Scorable, interesting routing and some memorable holes and great sea views. This may not have been a natural links style setting before, but the Castle is a truly an exceptional golf course and one you should play on your trip to the Home Of Golf.
The Castle Course has its detractors, mainly the local folk of St Andrews as well as golfing traditionalists, but I’m going to speak up and make a case on behalf of the defence. We heard damming reviews from several people whilst in Scotland, including course marshals at the original St Andrews’ courses, but I found its reputation undeserved. Visitors to the Castle surely can’t deny that this course is truly spectacular when it hits its highs.
The Castle is a modern links in style, and although it lived its previous life as a simple potato field, the earth was pushed around by machines to create a more interesting bumpy landscape. And before you make comment, I’m fully aware that the Castle isn’t a genuine, bona fide links, but it does play very linksy due to the fairways and greens being made up of fescue grass and heavily top-dressed with sand.
The course has mainly been set up for visitor golf, as its main reason for existence was to reduce overcrowding on the courses located in the town. Everything is catered for on-site with excellent service levels. Whereas the older Links Trust courses are simply accompanied by a starter’s hut, there’s a more polished welcome for visitors on arrival at the Castle where they’ll take care of your golf bag and you’ll have the opportunity to hit from a pyramid of balls on the range.
As nice as this all is, I generally regard these extra services as pretty materialistic fluff. We’ve come to play the golf course, and it’s one that I really enjoyed. Firstly, being a cliff-top course, there are the great views, so that’s an immediate tick in the box. There are also some pretty crazy and daunting greens, but if the flags are located in sensible pin locations, which they generally were during my rounds, they’re entirely playable. I understand that they’ve been softened since the course opened ten years ago and I genuinely found them to be a lot of fun, adding to the on-course experience rather than ruining it like others have suggested.
To pick some of my favourite golf holes, I’d have to highlight the 6th with its blind tee shot over the crest of a hill and where using a putter is a genuine option for your approach into the second. Choosing a side of the fairway on this hole is vital as to whether your drive will kick down and gather an extra 80-yards. The land then slopes severely downward towards a raised green that comes complete with views over the water and across to the town of St Andrews. The 7th has another of these elevated greens and hugs the cliff-face that borders the entire left-hand side of this hole. The 10th is all about the wacky, multi-tiered green whilst the 12th, easily the most fearsome of the Castle’s holes, plays 454-yards up a disheartening climb to a green that peers menacingly down on those struggling their way up the fairway. If that wasn’t enough, it’s lined with nasty bunkers where advancing your ball 20-yards up the fairway is about the best you could hope to achieve. The round then has an iconic finish with the signature par three 17th that’s played over a deep precipice, and then the 18th that curves around the top of those same cliffs to a giant, infinity double-green.
If I was to look for negatives, the course does feel somewhat manufactured, but given the ground they were provided with, it would have been a minor miracle if this wasn’t the case. My bigger gripe is the bunker aesthetics. I can understand that there may be reasons such as drainage and wind as to why traditional revetted or waste bunkers might not be workable, but I didn’t feel that they fit in sympathetically with the landscape. Maybe it’s the gleaming white sand, or the artificial raggidy edges, or probably a combination of both, but I felt that the bunkers should have been more in-keeping with the rest of the St Andrews Links courses. But there you go. That’s it. That’s honestly all I have to say that’s negative about the course.
The Castle Course therefore has plenty of merit. It offers something different to the other courses around St Andrews, and variety is the spice of life after all. It’s also not as difficult as everyone makes out, just be careful with your shot selection and a score is gettable. Having been made aware of golf architect Tom Doak’s ‘zero score’ in his Confidential Guide ahead of playing the Castle Course, on reflection this assessment now comes across as being a little rude and jealous of the opportunity afforded to David McLay Kidd.
Haven't heard any detractors and would say to them to get real....this is a VERY good course well worth anyone's green fee.
I’m not going to disagree Kevin, but I’m surprised you’ve never come across any negative reviews of the Castle Course. It must be one of the most divisive courses in world golf.
We played the Castle Course on a windy, but sunny, day in May. We'd read all of the 'horror' stories concerning the greens but had also spoken to people who'd previously played the course and had great things to say about it. One thing that did seem to be a common opinion among those golfers that had played the course was that scoring was hard, so nobody in our group was expecting to shoot to handicap.
We'd driven up from the Midlands that morning and this was to be our 1st round of 4 on this short trip North. The clubhouse is very welcoming and everyone very friendly. We enjoyed lunch and a bit of time on the range (free) before teeing off. The view of the 9/18 double green showed us what we'd have to contend with in a couple of hours! The only negative for me was the shop - there wasn't a great range of Castle Course logo clothing for sale.
A quick chat with the starter and we were underway. I managed to lose 2 balls over the 4 rounds and unfortunately my opening tee shot was one of them, as the wind took it way way left.
The course itself was very enjoyable, and whilst the greens were tough I don't think they were unplayable like others have said. In fact, with perhaps the 10th green being the exception, we didn't have too much trouble with the putter.
The views across the bay are fantastic and the course itself was in great condition.
I'd certainly love to play it again.
An absolute stunner. Is it hard? Yes, if you put the ball in the wrong places, especially around the greens - which I found out to my cost early on. But you learn to take good notice of the green layout in the strokesaver book before approaching and this makes a big difference. One I started aiming for the sensible zones, and doing my best to keep away from the huge undulations, scoring improved. Ultimately I played 1 over my handicap and was delighted.
We had amazing weather, which always helps and do in more challenging conditions this would be a brute - but personally I don’t play golf for it always to be easy, and I found the course to be very fair. The greens were absolutely superb in condition, the best of those we played (inc Old and New). The welcome and service around the clubhouse was first class. This was my favourite playing experience in St Andrews. What a beauty.
Many I suspect don't bother with the Castle instead opting for the Old Course down below.
This is easily the second best course in the St Andrews Links stable.
Amazing "hillside links" (?!?!?) course with amazing views and whenever I have played it and increasing wind speed as you gradually ascend to the top of the course.
Stunning finishing holes and clubhouse view to match.
The course lived up the reviews I had read and the tales from some friends who had the pleasure of playing it over the years. The major memory of the course were the undulations in the greens! This isn't a classic links like the core business of the trust down in the town. I can definitely say we had a riot of a game, a course that would have been frustrating in stroke play but was fun in match play. The pace of play was slow ahead of us but it gave us more time to hit a few practice/experimental putts on each green, while we waited to get on the next tee. A course this long with its tight lay out and difficult greens would be best avoided on windy days.
Played the Castle Course on Saturday for the second time some 8 years apart.
The course is tough but the memory is that the greens are ridicules and unfortunately the memory was corrrect. We heard rumours that they had been softened unfortunately this is not the case. The greens ment that good shots got repelled and it was vertically impossible to get even a chip close.
Of our group of 13 players 4-24 handicappers it was agreed that we would not be returning.
This is a great pity as there are some bueatifull holes which with fair greens would have us coming back year after year.
Please do something about it.
How different we view things...
We (a group of six players HCP 7-23) played it Friday 31st. We then came back Saturday afternoon to play the 1-9 once again (after playing Kingsbarns in the morning). I totally disagree with your verdict. We all had read the reviews before playing and our expectations were not met. From a positive view. Amazing course. Wonderful clubhouse. Stukning views. And. The greens tricky but playable and fair.
Or it might just be as one of the locals told us; You really need to know how to play the game in order to like the Castle Course (edit, we all played closed to our hcp incl the HCP 7 and HCP 23 player.) ;-)
Mathias - to be fair when we played it we felt the front nine was much stronger than the back, where the poor course design is far more obvious and the layout not as spectcular - things like ridges of rough in the middle of the fairway after blind tee shots, badly placed bunkers and silly pin placements, as well as the severe greens. I remember eating a bacon sarnie after the ninth thinking about how fantastic it was, then leaving 18 thinking id rather play the new or jubilee next time I'm up. Other reviews saying to 'forget your scorecard and bring the camera' I think say a lot about its merits in terms of course design.
Agree it is definitely worth playing though as the clubhouse, range and views are all fantastic and it is maybe only beaten by the old course and kingsbarnes as an experience in the area.
This year we started our annual spring links golf week with the Castle Course at St Andrews.
On paper, a really stupid proposition as half the fourball played their first round of the season and much of the criticism of the Castle Course tends to center on its difficulty: high rough/lost balls and nearly impossible greens.
In reality, things turned out well and our datapoints to add to the debate are: (1) fewer lost balls than at every other course during the week bar TOC, (2) decent scores, at least not any worse than later in the week, despite 27 out of 36 holes played in a two-club-wind, (3) just one putt all day in the crazy golf category, and my friend nearly holed it!
Our provisional conclusion based on two rounds is that playing the Castle, the Eden and the TOC represents the most varied combination of what St Andrews can offer and we would have no hesitation recommending it to anyone remotely interested in course design. (If you cannot get on TOC, substitute with the New or the Jubilee to get a similar mix.)
An equally provisional verdict would also be positive (5 balls), assuming the slightly below average conditioning we encountered was temporary rather than representative.
The Castle Course is something else. It's just absolutely beautiful. However, the course is hard. The greens are hard. The views are incredible, and I really loved playing it. That being said I'm not sure if I ever want to put myself through that test again. It's an experience I recommend, but if you take yourself or your score too seriously you may end up hating it. I believe the best description of the Castle I've heard was "leave the scorecard in the bag, and take out the camera." - JWE
We played the course yesterday and it more a course to make pictures for a golf calendar than to to play serious golf ( counting every stroke).
Anyhow a great experience. FK
I think it’s fair to expect any course in and around St Andrews to be good, so, having heard Tom Doak had given The Castle Course a zero in his latest Confidential Guide, I was intrigued to see what could possibly have led to such a harsh evaluation. Knowing that Doak isn’t a fan of courses that have been ‘raped and shaped’ one can only assume this is what made him feel the course is deserving of such ill-founded criticism, as the land used to create the course was nothing but farmland before the project was commissioned. I can only imagine how much soil must have been shifted, as what McLay Kidd has created with very little help from mother nature is highly impressive and imaginative. The course offers every challenge possible, with ample opportunities to give the big stick a rip off the tee and imagination and precision required in the approach play, as this is a true shot makers course, with infinite possibilities for pin positions on the vastly undulating greens. There is a good mix of holes, with the par 3’s and 5’s presenting many different challenges and strategic decisions. Much has been said of the difficulty of the greens and some critics suggest they are unplayable and unfair, but as we played the course in winter conditions the greens were receptive and a relatively slow pace, making them no more difficult than many other courses. That said, you do need to land the ball in the right spot, so club selection is key to the approach play here to avoid treacherous putts.
Although the first stretch of holes present drama and considerable challenges, the course really takes off from the par four 6th hole. A blind tee shot to a fairway that runs downhill towards the sea, sets up an inviting second to the green site, which sits at the bottom edge of the course. The seventh, eighth and ninth holes all run along the boundary at the low point of the course, bringing the cliff edges into play, with elevation changes that create drama and excitement. The par 3 eighth is a beautiful looking short hole, reminding me slightly of the 11th at Castle Stuart. The similarities between The Castle Course and Castle Stuart don’t end there, as the 17/18th par three/five finish is strikingly comparable, with both courses making excellent use of their rugged coastlines to produce stunning vistas along the final stretch. The 18th is a pure risk reward par 5, where the longer hitter can bite off a huge chunk of the left to right dogleg to leave a reachable second shot and set up an eagle putt.
Overall, I’d say this course is a fine example of modern links design and similar in style to Turnberry and Castle Stuart. It’s not up there with those two giants in the quality of turf and conditioning, but it’s certainly a top-quality venue with an abundance of character and its own unique challenges. SB
Thanks for pointing me in the direction of Doak's book. He sounds a tad bitter about the Castle course. To actually create an interesting course from a potato farm probably takes more imagination, or guts, than dealing with, and creating from, perfect linksland.
Really enjoyable review, and from playing the Castle Course a couple of times the Doak review is way off beam - I think that the Links Trust is to be commended for building a more modern style of golf course with great views of St Andrews whilst keeping true to the fun of Links golf.
Actually, the Castle Course is one of the most under-rated courses in the UK (especially amongst St Andrews golfers !).